Sunday, April 26, 2009

Should we trust studies about breastfeeding?

by Nick Cox

A new scientific study has suggested that women who breast-feed may be in less danger of developing a whole litany of health conditions, says a recent New York Times article. The article lists these conditions at great lengths and cites statistics, before reminding us that correlation does not imply causation—that is, breast-feeding is not necessarily directly beneficial to your health. It's possible that women who breast-feed just take better care of themselves. If there is a direct link between breast-feeding and better health, though, the scientists hypothesize it may involve oxytocin, a hormone released during breast-feeding as well as sex. The article mentions that breast-feeding is also known to help the uterus recover more quickly from pregnancy and childbirth; and, most importantly, it notes that breast-feeding burns calories, helping new mothers shed those extra pounds more quickly.

The Greeks had the Oracle of Delphi, Catholics have the Pope, and we have our scientific studies. We all know that, since the decline of God, science has taken His place as the sole authoritative source of objective truth, and most of us are probably glad. We may be less aware, though, of the extent to which the oracular ritual has remained the same. The soothsayer's interpretive art was an esoteric knowledge incomprehensible to ordinary people; he could read meanings where they could only see a mess of animal viscera. And the Papacy, consolidating the previously unorganized oracular authority into one person—the Pope—offered people messages delivered directly from God, without even the mediation of an interpreter. Both of these are early examples of purveyors of expert information, a class of people that since then has ballooned enormously.

It's true that the merchants of specialized knowledge in our time are of an appreciably different nature. Their industry has, like many things in our society, become heavily democratized. Soothsayers kept their secrets within their guilds, and only one person was ever invested with papal authority, but science is, at least in theory, just as democratic as capitalism. If you have a Ph.D. and claim to have performed a properly controlled experiment, the authority is yours for the taking. Of course, unlike the Pope, you must acknowledge that your experiment was fallible, that it shows a correlation but does not necessarily prove anything. But that doesn't matter—if your experiment suggests something that people like, they will believe you just as faithfully as they believed the soothsayers.

If we treat the breast-feeding experiment like the insides of a fish carcass and examine it for hidden messages, it tells us some interesting things. It is, first and foremost, yet another example of the fetishization of health that has increasingly come to overshadow morality as the scale according to which people judge one another. People nowadays, especially New York Times readers, probably care much less about social mores than their parents did. Immorality for them is the realm of factory farming and the Taliban; in light of the horrendous evil they see in the newspaper, they are more than willing to forgive an out of wedlock pregnancy or two. But, in the absence of traditional morality, health is quietly turning into an indicator of character.

I say "quietly" because this shift is not overt. No one is saying that unhealthy people are "bad" in the same way that child molesters and third-world dictators are; that would be politically incorrect. In contemporary popular discourse these "evildoers" are hardly even afforded the status of human beings; conventional morality barely applies to them. Rather, health has become moralized in the same sort of way that capitalism, according to Max Weber, resulted from a moralizing of wealth accumulation—that is, health today signifies strength of character. Poor health, which nowadays seems often to be accompanied by visible chubbiness, is a sign that you lack the discipline to avoid unhealthy foods and go to the gym. Regardless of how nice you are to other people, if you show signs of not taking care of yourself you will be viewed with suspicion.

The breast-feeding study has clear moral implications regardless of which interpretation of the data you accept. If you believe that there is indeed a direct causal link between breast-feeding and "health benefits," then to nonetheless continue to rely on baby formula would amount to a moral failure, a betrayal of self. And even if you believe it, you are still left with the judgment that women who nurse tend to take better care of themselves. In other words, that nursing is the sort of thing that a responsible, self-caring woman does. And if you do not nurse, then in all likelihood you are not this sort of woman. This interpretation seems almost Calvinist in the way it separates the way the world into two groups, the healthy wheat and the unhealthy chaff.

The outcome is the same for either interpretation: breast-feeding is the way to go, and if you don't do it then there's something wrong with you. By this I do not mean to imply that the study's conclusions are false; the idea that breast-feeding has health benefits is quite plausible. I just find it interesting that the conclusions just so happen, by means of scientific evidence, to re-enforce a traditional gender role. As a feminist it's hard to know how to take something like this. It would seem to threaten women's freedom by transposing an element of traditional femininity into nature. But I'm sure if you confronted the scientists with this troubling problem they would probably say that all they did was analyze the data. And I'm sure that's all they did. There's no reason to think they had any sort of antifeminist agenda regardless of what their experiment showed.

I take all this only as a reminder that the patriarchy is much more insidious and subtle than some feminists might like to admit. It is not, as we sometimes like to imagine, a cabal of men in suits who smoke cigars in the basement of the Pentagon. The patriarchy is bigger than all of us, and it expresses itself in places where we don't even recognize it. Now that we have stripped away many of its more obvious layers, it is becoming increasingly clear how thoroughly it is still burrowed into the consciousness of even the most "open-minded" feminist. The moralization of both breast-feeding and women's health in general are signs that the patriarchy must be fought in the domain of individual consciousness as well as the public sphere.


At April 26, 2009 at 5:23 PM , Anonymous Angela said...

Even if breastfeeding has health benefits for the child, it is impeding women's progress in the workforce. This over-concern for babies' well-being is another example of the fetishization of fertility that is the strongest remnant of the Patriarchy.

As long as sexists are made uncomfortable by breastfeeding and claim that the presence of babies in the workplace is "disruptive", I say a slight decrease in infant's health is a small price to pay for our liberation. The rest of the argument about it's efficacy is just icing on the cake

At April 27, 2009 at 1:33 PM , Anonymous Dan said...


Your comment begs the question about what is really "impeding women's progress in the workforce." Is it "over-concern for babies' well-being" or is it "sexists made uncomfortable by breastfeeding..."? You seem to be advocating that we all just capitulate and sacrifice our babies' well-being so that sexists can have their way in the workplace. Is that your vision of "liberation"?

At April 27, 2009 at 7:35 PM , Anonymous Chloe said...

Well, I think the "sacrificing our babies' well-being" rhetoric is a little overblown, a little Helen Lovejoy-esque, Dan. Pregnancy and childrearing are about what's best for babies, but it's also about what's best for mothers. And it really does seem that breast feeding is better for babies in that it's the best substance and a good way to bond. In addition, many mothers also say they love the experience of breastfeeding and wouldn't want to have to miss out on it.
But Angela is right - breastfeeding holds women back at work, because workplaces haven't properly adjusted to the reality that women are now 50% of the workforce. So, either this country institutes paid maternity leave so that women actually have financial means to make the choice of taking time off work during the breastfeeding period, or society stops moralizing about the need to exclusively breast feed for a year and stops gasping at the sight of a mother engaging in the perfectly natural act of feeding her baby. There's a reason why modern women think of pregnancy and child rearing, especially in the early years, as a burden and not as a blessing. It's because our society still structures work around the male life cycle, making no allowances for workers who deviate from that cycle, ie. workers who get pregnant and breastfeed. As a result, being a mother and having a job outside the home is incredibly difficult; our workplace policies ensure that motherhood is perceived as a burden, not as a blessing. Something has to change, and I think the anger Angela is expressing is justified, because women have made the effort to change, to fit themselves into a system that refuses to accommodate them, and, quite rightly, they're angry.

At April 28, 2009 at 2:52 PM , Anonymous Dan said...


You say "breastfeeding holds women back at work, because workplaces haven't properly adjusted to the reality that women are now 50% of the workforce." This statement begs the same question as Angela's comment. Are we really achieving liberation by agreeing that women ought to forego breastfeeding? Shouldn't we be advocating instead that workplaces and governments "adjust to the reality"?

Your comment is (perhaps rightly) focussed exclusively on the situation in the U.S., but it is worth noting how some other countries have already implemented significant adjustments:

To those who think that paid maternity (and paternity) leave is overly socialistic, I would ask you to consider that all of us have a vested interest in establishing optimum conditions for breeding and rearing the next generation. Our future quite literally depends on it. On this topic, I found the following article interesting and informative:

At April 28, 2009 at 3:15 PM , Anonymous Chloe said...

Dan, a miscommunication:
"either this country institutes paid maternity leave so that women actually have financial means to make the choice of taking time off work during the breastfeeding period, or society stops moralizing about the need to exclusively breast feed for a year and stops gasping at the sight of a mother engaging in the perfectly natural act of feeding her baby." I'm advocating paid maternity leave, and a more sane attitude towards women breastfeeding in public and at work.
And of course, we all have a vested interest in making sure that babies are raised optimally. Which is why we need to stop making raising children while working outside the home so difficult for women.

At April 28, 2009 at 7:34 PM , Anonymous Dan said...


I think we mostly agree on this one. Just don't forget to advocate paid paternity leave too.


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